Seven years ago, during my first week in Youth Ministry, the Youth Minister at a neighboring parish called inviting me to a meeting of area Youth Ministers. We drove to the meeting together, and from that time on, planned and attended multiple events with our youth groups. A few days ago, that same man was arrested for sexually abusing a minor.
My heart has been in my throat ever since.
To everyone who trusted this man and anyone who has been harmed by someone they trusted: I’m sorry, so sorry that you were used by someone who should have loved you. I’m sorry that you thought you could trust someone and were utterly betrayed. And I beg you, please, cast your hurt, your sorrow on Jesus. Weep as long as you need to, and /know that He is weeping beside you. Place your trust in Him so that He can heal you. Ask Him to show you people that you can trust moving forward. And know that there are good people in the Church praying for you and praying that you will know you are worthy of love and deeply loved by the One Who will never let you down.
It’s impossible for a tragedy like this to occur without our faith being shaken. Really shaken. We’ve got to wrestle with the “why” and “who can I trust” questions. I’ve felt Betrayed: was he just pretending that whole time? Angry: entertaining ideas of how much I’d like to punch him. Confused: why? since when? Hurt: how could he mar the reputation of our Church this way? Worried: I don’t want to let my own three children out of my sight ever again. But mostly, Heartbroken: a vulnerable girl was manipulated by a man she thought she could trust. In the midst of all of these emotions, I wonder, where does this leave us: the members of the local church; the young people from his parish; youth from any parish; parents and Youth Ministers? How are we to respond?
Before anything else, we must pray. I pray that no one loses their faith as a result of this terrible incident. I pray that through His mercy, Christ can help us (the hurting teens, the hurting families, the hurting colleagues,) to grieve and then strengthen our resolve to trust wholly in Him. We must remember Christ’s promise to Peter that “upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it.” (Matthew 16:18) Right now, those gates of the hell seem to be pushing hard against the Church in our area, but we must not let them prevail. Great evil has been done, and the devil would like nothing more than to take lots of us down with him. Now is the time to fortify.
Now is the time to pause and reflect on our reactions and their ramifications. If this incident causes us to lose faith in the Catholic Church, we should ask ourselves, “In whom am I placing my faith?” Is my faith rooted in Christ Himself or in the nice people that I’ve met at church? And for those of us in ministry, we have to re-examine our motivation for doing what we do; remembering that true, authentic, holy ministry is meant not to build our own egos, but to build up the Kingdom of God.
When I was a little girl, a priest was stationed at our parish. A nasty priest. He was nasty to my mom and our family, turning up his nose at our “large” family of eight. He brought his own booklet that he placed on top of the Sacramentary during Eucharistic prayer, and was not happy when my mom challenged him on it! His homilies were not thought-provoking or genuine. My siblings and I came up with an unkind nickname for him and begged my parents to find us another to church to attend. This is when they taught us a most valuable lesson: our Catholic faith is much bigger than the people in it…even its leaders! My parents said, “Sure, we could start going to a Protestant church and probably hear much better sermons, but we’d be giving up the Sacraments, which are our source of Eternal Life on earth.”
The Church is made up of flawed – sometimes very flawed – people. The mystical body of Christ, the Church with a big “C,” is something we should never give up on because Christ promised never to give up on Her. “I am with you always, unto the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20.) People on earth are members of the Church, but the Catholic Church expands beyond them. The Church expands beyond space and time. The Church is sustained by the prayers of our big brothers and sisters, the saints in heaven. She is led by the voice of the Holy Spirit, He speaks through our leaders in the teaching authority of the Church. She is the conduit through which graces flow in the form of Baptism, Holy Eucharist, Reconciliation, and the other Sacraments. So while this incident has caused us to lose faith in one church leader, I beg all Catholics: do not let it rob you of your faith in the Catholic Church. Our faith must not be rooted in the person of the priest or lay ministers that we encounter. It must be rooted in Christ himself because He is the One guaranteed to never let us down.
It is good to be inspired by priests, lay ministers, and other members of the Church. So please don’t read this and think you should never trust anyone. We simply must be on guard not to look to earthly ministers to fill the role that only Christ can. If someone is truly fulfilling their ministry, they will point you toward Christ and not toward themselves. That kind of minister can earn your trust, truly help you to grow, and be a mentor for you as you strive to live a Catholic life. This kind of leader will follow the example of Saint Mother Teresa who said, “I'm a little pencil in the hand of a writing God, who is sending a love letter to the world.” Church leaders are the pencil. Not the hand. Not the mind. Not even the heart of the love letter. They are simply an instrument used to communicate and exemplify Jesus’ love and to always lead us back to Him.
Throughout history, there have been plenty of bad leaders in the Church. And yet our Church remains, standing firm as a beacon of hope, mercy, and salvation to those who need it. Our Church will withstand this scandal. It is up to us not to despair but to continue to worship, minister, pray, and live; and in so doing, to strengthen the Church in the midst of these difficult times.
Our Lady, Undoer of Knots, pray for us.